A Jewish cemetery. Photo: Getty
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The antisemitism of Kevin Myers is a timely reminder of how prejudice hibernates

Overt antisemitism is now unacceptable, but that doesn't mean prejudice against Jewish people is extinct.

How could anyone look at the words “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price” and think, “yeah, this is fine to publish in a national newspaper”?

That was my first response to the article by Kevin Myers in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times this weekend, and a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly since.

The newspaper’s publisher will try to find an answer, to isolate the source of the “error of judgement” which led to the column appearing not just in the paper, but also on the website the Irish edition shares with the Times and Sunday Times published in the UK. Both the Irish editor and his UK counterpart have apologised for the piece, and it has been withdrawn from the website. Myers will not write again for the paper, according to a statement issued yesterday. 

While the individual incident – and the swift response – are noteworthy, the bigger pattern is important too. Antisemitism still exists even in a country like the UK, and even within the sort of genteel circles Times readers are drawn from.

I have good friends who have used exactly the same offensive stereotype to my (half-Jewish) face. I remember one, when a handful of us were eating at a restaurant, asking whether we should order another bowl of dumplings. I said no, I wasn’t hungry, to which he responded: “Stop being such a Jew.”

That kind of comment will be wearingly familiar to many with a Jewish background, but there is something instructive in why my lefty, liberal friends thought it OK to say something they knew was antisemitic. It was because, as far as they were concerned, antisemitism is no longer a problem.

The argument is obviously self-defeating. If antisemitism no longer existed, why would "Jew jokes" about penny-pinching occur to anyone in the first place?

Yet it’s not too hard to see why some people believe that Jews no longer face any prejudice worth talking about. Compared with those from other religious and ethnic minorities, most Jewish people in Britain are rarely made to feel uncomfortable because of their background. Abuse on the street – though seemingly rising – is still relatively rare, in part because, unlike many other minorities, most Jews are difficult to visually identify.

Discrimination in the workplace is also unusual, and Jews now face few barriers to a professional or business career. In contrast, most other minorities are massively and consistently under-represented.

Importantly, antisemitism has become publicly unacceptable in a way that most other forms of bigotry have not. Kevin Myers was rapidly dispatched from his berth in the Irish Sunday Times, but many commentators are employed across Fleet Street seemingly for the express purpose of spewing equally damaging stereotypes and slurs about other groups – especially Muslims.

I suspect that this all played a role in how Myers's piece slipped through. Editors are attuned to the issues of the day; antisemitism is meant to be a problem of the past.

Things are of course worse in places like Hungary, where vicious, violent and increasingly institutionalised antisemitism is returning. Jews still make a good scapegoat, an other to persecute, for authoritarians and fascists.

But here in the UK, I find these individual incidents – my friends’ casual bigotry, the antisemitism of Myers – not all that worrying. Indeed, many Jews have got used to shrugging off half-heard comments or jokey banter.

But Myers’s comments – and the casual antisemitism of my friends – are reminders that prejudice has a surprising ability to endure, to hibernate and poke its head through into the light, even when you think it is gone for good. 

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.